Benefits for vets could increase

A bill would assure veterans money for tuition even after federal help runs out.

Courtney Blanchard

Jeremiah Peterson missed home like any other college student, but he was further away than most. During the fall of 2003, he left for Iraq with his National Guard unit.

“For two years, home was the only place I wanted to be. And when I got there, it wasn’t home anymore,” he said.

Peterson’s friends in his fraternity had already graduated, and he had trouble connecting to the new crowd. After being gone for two years, he forgot a lot of his lower-division chemistry classes and switched from pre-med to an individualized major.

Like Peterson, many armed forces veterans’ difficulties aren’t over once they’re back on domestic soil. Paying for higher education can be just one, but a bill in the Minnesota Legislature would guarantee veterans free tuition after federal benefits run out.

Peterson had a couple of things going for him. First, through a combination of good credit and saving, he bought a house in Como and paid the mortgage with his roommates’ rent. Second, he knew how to use all the benefits he could receive as a veteran.

Peterson said when he returned from Iraq, he didn’t feel comfortable at home. With a small budget and an open mind, he traveled to Asia for a month, stopping through Japan and Thailand.

Next, he went through Europe and made a stop in Ireland. Then he went to Africa. He went to South America for a month, traveling from coast to coast. Last Christmas break, he spent time in Russia and Sweden. This summer, he’s going to Australia.

“I usually travel alone. You find more adventures that way,” he said.

With a combination of smart investments, savings and army benefits, Peterson can travel and stay at the University, but to do so he had to re-enlist in the National Guard.

Not all veterans have the same experience as Peterson.

Veterans with families, outside jobs or any complication can have difficulty paying for school completely with federal benefits, said Ben Wogsland, assistant director of communications and research for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office.

Wogsland said the federal GI Bill pays tuition for 36 months with a 10-year time frame to complete school. Veterans who need to attend school for more than four years can have trouble getting their tuition paid if they don’t plan ahead.

“The bottom line is we have a great federal program in place, but for some, it doesn’t work,” he said.

Attorney General Lori Swanson worked with several state legislators for a bill to guarantee veterans of all branches of the military can attend school for free, even if they’ve exhausted federal benefits, Wogsland said.

Modeled after a similar law in Wisconsin and Illinois, spouses and children of injured or killed soldiers would receive free tuition to state universities.

Mary Koskan, One stop Student Services Center director, said the GI Bill and other benefits vary for each branch of the military and whether the soldier is still on active duty. Degree-seeking veterans get a monthly check to cover books, rent or tuition for up to 36 months.

Koskan said students can run out of benefits before

they graduate if they change their major or use the money for something else, but it’s rare.

“I don’t know if it’s a lack of benefits or the student’s financial situation, like a car breaking down,” she said.

In that case, veterans have the option to apply for financial aid available to every student, through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Koskan said.

Ryan Curl, enrollment administrator in the University’s Army ROTC program, said he hasn’t encountered any problems at the University with tuition assistance, primarily because of the way the ROTC works.

Students who are contracted in the program are not deployed overseas while in school, and they receive a full scholarship for tuition and fees, book allowance and a stipend, he said.

National Guard and Army Reserve members, however, might see their schooling interrupted by an overseas

tour. In that case, he said the biggest complication is dropping everything in the middle of the semester and working with professors and school administrators to clear things out.

Curl said another problem is some veterans don’t know exactly what benefits they’re eligible for. Paperwork and deadlines can pile up, and with a large influx of veterans, it’s easy to be lost in the shuffle, he said.

“Now we have more veterans than we’ve had in a long time,” Curl said. “We need to take care of them.”

Jeremy Reem came back from serving with the National Guard in Iraq in March 2005, and now he’s juggling five classes, an internship and a three-month-old daughter.

Like Peterson, Reem said he re-enlisted with the National Guard to help supplement federal benefits to pay for school.

But there is always a possibility he’ll get redeployed.

“That won’t be anytime real soon,” Reem said.